Japanese tea overview
There's enough material here not to add a lengthy introduction, so I'll just cut straight to the chase. I often receive questions about various Japanese tea families, how they are made, what's their difference and what do they taste like. At least enough of them to justify putting up a quick reference guide as a form of general answer. This is by no mean a deep and exhaustive look at the whole of Japanese tea, but it resembles my thoughts and explanations on the subject. Whenever they're asked for. Please enjoy the read.
Sencha really needs no introduction. If you've stumbled one way or another on this article, my guess is you’re somewhat familiar with the term already. So probably you know about the grassy green cup that made its reputation. Still, we’ll dive a bit deeper here and take a closer look at this tea family.
Sencha means "simmered tea" or "steeped tea", referring to the way the leaves are prepared and consumed. In the 12th century, when tea culture started spreading in Japan, monks and nobles (the intellectual elite) would drink tea in its powdered form called matcha. The ritualized preparation of matcha eventually became known as chanoyu, or the Tea Ceremony. Opposite to them were the farmers and workers who drank their tea in loose leaf form, steeping it rather than whisking it. For a long time, sencha was considered a lesser form of tea preparation. It was more or less "the people's tea". This, however, changed over time but I'm not about to tell the whole story of sencha here and I'll just get straight to the point. How is sencha made and what's the difference between all of them?
The transformation of sencha involves steaming the leaves after harvest to stop their oxidation and prevent them from darkening. Oxidation is what causes the tea leaves to turn black over time. Heating the leaves (with steam or with direct heat) halts this process and keeps them green.
Steaming can be short, medium or long, which has a big impact on a tea’s taste and appearance.
Asamushi: light steaming. The taste is green and crisp, sometimes giving the impression of a raw leaf taste. Asamushi sencha tend to brew a rather yellow cup with clear aromas and some degree of astringency.
Chuumushi / futsumushi: regular steaming. The tea mellows and takes on a deeper "green" profile. The little extra seconds of heat give brilliance to the secondary aromas. Astringency and bitterness here are usually nicely balanced.
Fukamushi: long steaming. Taste moves from light and crisp to rich and dense. The longer steaming generally produces bold teas with intense aromatics. It also breaks the leaves, making their infusion often hazy and brightly coloured.
Gyokuro is certainly the most famous representative of the shaded Japanese teas (although matcha is also grown under shade, it is not necessarily known for it). The shading process involves a canopy of either straw or synthetic textile built over the tea trees to block their sunlight exposure, and thus their photosynthesis. In reaction, the gyokuro plants adapt their chemical composition to compensate for the loss of sunlight.
Traditionally, gyokuro teas are shaded anywhere from three to four weeks before harvest. Longer shading brings forth the superb umami flavour gyokuro teas are known for while diminishing their bitterness and astringency in return. This allows for very concentrated steeping an almost unequalled aromatic intensity across any tea family. I like to say drinking a good gyokuro is akin to drinking a good scotch: very intense and extremely memorable.
Kabusecha (which translates as "covered tea") is another formed of shaded teas from Japan. They basically stand near half-point between sencha and gyokuro with somewhere between 7 to 14 days of partial shading. Taste-wise, they also take a bit from both. They've got some of the grassiness and aromatic clarity of sencha while also displaying reduced astringency and some degree of umami.
Another Japanese tea that needs no introduction. We've heard about it, read about its benefits, drank it in lattes and ate matcha cookies at our local bakery shop. We've seen how its preparation has been elevated into an art form, with each movement ritualized and choreographed to the extreme, but we've rarely talked about how it's made and why does it taste the way it does. There are, obviously, huge differences in agricultural practices and production methods that lead to various grades of matcha reaching the market.
Besides shading the trees before harvest, making higher-end matcha also includes a "deveining" process (meaning separating the tender leaf tissue from the harder stem parts) and a milling process that turns it into fine powder. Removing the coarser parts of the leaf ensures a mellow taste with low bitterness, which is essential when considering how concentrated matcha preparation is.
As opposed to steeped teas, matcha is diluted in water and frothed using a bamboo whisk. Hence what you drink is not the extracted aromatics from the leaves, but the leaves themselves. Matcha is typically prepared in very small espresso-like portions (3-4 gulps only) but is nowadays mostly drunk in lattes.
Also sometimes known as bocha (“stick tea”), kukicha is a blend of leaves and stems usually sold as a low-cost daily beverage. When tea is harvested mechanically in the fields, there are a lot of twigs and stems to sort out in the factory in order to produce high-quality sencha. Most of the time, these twigs and stems are sold separately (or blended with lower grade leaves) as kukicha. Kukicha is easy to drink, contains fewer tannins than sencha and generally less caffeine.
Most commonly, the term bancha refers to sencha-type teas made from summer or fall harvests (which are considered lower in quality). They will often include a few twigs as there’s no real point in sorting and refining them too much. In some regions though, bancha is found under roasted, boiled or even fermented forms.
A regional specialty from the Island of Kyushu, tamaryokucha can be found in two forms: steamed (mushisei-tamaryokucha which we will here simply call tamaryokucha) and pan-fired (kamairisei-tamaryokucha, or simply known as kamairicha).
Tamaryokucha resembles sencha in many aspects including taste and production methods. But while sencha leaves have a needle-like appearance due to their final rolling process, tamaryokucha undergoes its final drying without any rolling and its leaves end up shaped like commas. The term tamaryokucha means “coiled green tea” and is sometimes used interchangeably with guricha, or “curly tea”. The difference in the transformation sequence gives tamaryokucha less sharpness and clarity than sencha, but a richer and rounder profile overall.
Standing out as the only Japanese green tea that doesn’t use steam as a source of heat to prevent oxidation, kamairicha instead uses big iron pans to fire the leaves “à la Chinoise”, giving them a very mellow taste with low astringency.
Depending on how hot the pans are and how long the leaves are fired for, kamairicha can present a wide spectrum of aromatic profiles, ranging from “green vegetables” to “roasted nuts”.
Genmai means “rice” in Japanese. So genmaicha is “rice tea”, or tea with rice. The base is bancha (or any low-grade sencha), to which is added roasted rice grains. Traditionally, farmers would do this in the fall to help their tea preserve its fragrances over winter and make it a more comforting brew during the cold months.
Hojicha is a roasted tea and, again, something that was traditionally considered a “seasonal” brew. The roasting process caramelizes the aromatics in the tea and reduces its volatile compounds to help it stay fragrant throughout winter. Hojicha is usually made from low-grade material including both leaves and stems (although sometimes only stems).
Black tea (wakocha in Japanese) has a relatively short history in Japan which is closely tied to the occupation periods the country has known after its Isolation years (1639 to 1853). There are no fixed methods for producing black tea in Japan and some resemble more Chinese style black teas (with their curly leaves and malted aromas), while others have a more “Darjeeling” twist (with more visible buds and lighter aromatics). However, the demand for wakocha has been steadily rising these past years and farmers are starting to see how this style of transformation can give value to their summer and fall harvest, which are considered of poor quality for green tea production.